HC Deb 25 February 1960 vol 618 cc685-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sharples.]

9.1 p.m.

Mr. Ray Gunter (Southwark)

It is, perhaps, not inappropriate that we should turn from a discussion on the Church to one on education. I desire tonight to raise a matter of grave concern to a number of my constituents; and I think that the Minister will agree that it is a justifiable concern as it relates to the education of part of the citizens of Southwark.

I think that the Minister will also agree that the best qualities of citizens are displayed when they reveal anxiety about the conditions under which their children are being educated. I can assure him that there is concern in my constituency because of his actions over the past twelve months or so. It is the conditions that exist at Crampton Primary School in the Metropolitan Borough of Southwark which give rise to this concern.

One of the unfortunate tendencies appears to be that less emphasis is placed on primary education than upon other forms of education in the size of classes, and the priority of buildings. It would appear sometimes that the primary schools are not having the treatment that we should like them to have. I claim no expert knowledge in the field of education. I am frightened away from that field, because it appears to have so many educational experts who seem never to agree with one another. I must say, however, as an interested and ordinary sort of fellow, that I should have thought that if there were any stage at all when good conditions were an absolute necessity it was in the first formative years of a child's education.

The first five or six years of a child's education are of dramatic importance in the sense of moulding the questing mind of the child. Drabness, dreariness and inadequate facilities can make the child lose for the whole of a lifetime any idea of the true purpose and true joy of an educated mind. I do not doubt for one moment that the Minister is entirely in agreement with me on this desirable end. He has the unenviable and, I admit, difficult task of determining priorities within the physical resources available to him. I am sure, also, that he would not claim infallibility in the determination of priorities, but I would very respectfully say that I think that in this case a mistake has been made.

It is the belief of my constituents and local authorities that a mistake has been made. Crampton Primary School has 274 children on the register, in seven classes, almost entirely housed in hutments of a temporary character. One corrugated iron hutment was built for temporary purposes, I understand, in 1882; one was built in 1943, one in 1949, one in 1952 and one in 1954. They are there because of bombing which took place twenty years ago. Three of these hutments have two classes in them, and the classes are divided from each other by a thin partition. The entrance class is taught in the building which, as I have said, was built in 1882. It is a building which the inspector himself has described as follows: The hall, which, it will be remembered, is the oldest edifice, is small, dingy, poorly ventilated and cluttered. A wash-up takes up space on one side, stock cupboards have to be ranged at intervals round the walls, bulky apparatus for physical education is stacked there, and a small movable platform, from which the headmistress takes assembly, has also to be included, as well as a stand for the children's coats when it is wet. Admissions to the school number about 40 children a year. The toilets for these children are part of the original premises, built in 1882, and to proceed from the hutment to the toilets the children must cross open space. In other words, these children must be taken out into the open whatever the weather conditions.

The corporate life of the school, which is so necessary in these days, is desperately hampered because there is no adequate assembly hall. I draw the Minister's attention to a very serious statement made by his own inspector on this matter. He reported The atmosphere in this school is pleasant and secure, but, throughout, the children tend to show some evidence of immaturity for their age. A considerable variety of causes is responsible for this. He went on to say: One or two may be unalterable and some relate to the recent history of the school. In actual material structure, also, the school does not lend itself easily to the development of a corporate sense. We all agree that in these days a corporate sense is essential in a school if the children are to benefit from the facilities of education.

I turn for a moment to the heating arrangements. The heating is done mostly by gas heaters at ceiling level. Thus, the heads are hot, and the feet are cold on concrete floors. I again draw attention to the inspector's report. He reported that Two rather more minor disadvantages are that in wet weather the roofs of three of the most elderly huts are liable to leak and that the heating in two of the prefabricated huts (the oldest) is unsatisfactory; the overhead gas heaters beat uncomfortably upon the head of an adult and at the same time the heat fails to reach ground level. It is the considered opinion of the inspector that children suffer from cold feet and any work on the concrete floors is impossible in very cold weather. I turn to another matter—feeding. Only about 60 children can be given meals at the school because of the lack of facilities. Restriction of the numbers feeding there must take place because of the impossibility of dealing properly with any more. The inspector draws attention to this when he says: About 68 children stay for dinner—a relatively small number which is perhaps accounted for by the limited accommodation. The meal is a transported one. Arrangements for serving and washing up are very primitive and, perhaps in consequence, the service is rather slow, especially between courses. We are considering, therefore, not only the opinion of the school managers or of the local authority in my constituency, for here we have the views of the responsible people, sent around with the specific task of inspecting these schools, who can only deplore the conditions in which these children are educated. No tribute is high enough for the staff, who have fought a relentless battle against these conditions. Nevertheless, the turnover of staff is rather high because of the physical conditions. I must pay an additional word of tribute. The caretaker should have a gold watch as big as a frying pan for the work which he so magnificently performs in looking after the premises and keeping them in the state he does.

I want to draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to another factor, apart from the physical conditions prevailing at the school. Very near to the school the Alberta Housing Estate is in process of erection. I understand that it will be near completion in about three years from now. It will then contain 350 dwellings. The significance is that it is essentially a family estate. It is being let to younger married couples with their smaller families. What proposals has the Minister to deal with the growing number of young children, because he cannot conceive the idea that they must be jammed into these hutments.

It was for these reasons that the London County Council wanted to build a new school where the present assembly of hutments exists. The council included it in its 1960–63 programme. I understand that it was struck out by the Minister and is not now in the revised 1960–62 programme. Therefore, it is conceivable that we shall be arguing about these conditions for another three or four years.

I said at the outset of my remarks that I did not envy the Minister his difficult task of determining priorities, but with very great sincerity I appeal to him to have another look at this subject and not allow these conditions to prevail for another four or five years. Will he at least give us hope that he will bear in mind the urgency of the problem and perhaps come and look at the conditions? Will he give to the London County Council the earliest opportunity of proceeding with a modern school on this site? I am confident that he will appreciate the feelings of discontent in the hearts of this section of my constituents who have children, now being educated in conditions which are not worthy of a prosperous and modern society.

9.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

The hon. Member for Southwark (Mr. Gunter) has been kind enough almost to make my speech for me, and I am grateful to him both for doing that and for the restrained and purposeful way in which he put the case, which I know means much to him and to the parents, teachers and children at Crampton Street Primary School.

I was rather sorry that the hon. Gentleman thought it a good thing to say that, for whatever reason, primary education might be being thrust into the background at present. It can do no harm to relate the priorities under which the Ministry is compelled to work at present and which have been pursued, and indeed refined, as the years since the end of the war have passed.

Our first task was to provide accommodation for the children who remained in school as a result of raising the leaving age from 14 to 15. Then we had to set our house in order and put roofs over the heads of the growing number of children produced by what we now call loosely but graphically, the bulge. The House is aware, but no harm can come from repeating the fact, that there are now over 2 million more children in the schools of this country as a whole than there were at the end of the war. The first job of the Department was to provide those children with somewhere where they could be taught.

Apart from areas where there is a rapidly growing population and where populations move and change constantly, that part of the problem is now coming to a solution. Now we have to put ourselves in a position to provide accommodation for the children as they move from primary school to secondary school—the bulge. It may seem, but I hope not improperly, to the hon. Member that primary education, for the time being at any rate, is getting less of an immediate and overriding priority than it had before or than perhaps the hon. Member thinks it should have at present. I think that a reasonably fair part of the not unlimited resources has gone into that necessary part of the work.

I agree with every word that the hon. Member said about the significance and importance of the early years of a child's school life. I like to think that the work done at school will bear the kind of fruits that we should like to see as the children progress through their school life into a more complicated way of life of responsibility, business and marriage.

I now turn to the Crampton Primary School. We know that the school is not housed as happily as a school of this kind in this sort of area should be housed. I think that we would all share the view that a school in an area which is not itself a very good and elegant area should set an example and ought to be a good school. Here we are faced with a school which is not good. The bombing during the war destroyed the buildings, with the exception of the caretaker's house, the lavatories, and this old corrugated hut—not a very wise choice of targets, I should have thought. That is what was left of the school. The London County Council, in its efforts to provide accommodation for the children, set about trying to put something up. I should have thought that the London County Council was entitled to great praise for its efforts. The hon. Gentleman listed them. I have them before me. I think that it is a commendable record. These huts were put up during 1943, 1949, 1952 and 1954. The old corrugated temporary building is older than any of us.

I am bound to say that there are difficulties in teaching there. I had the advantage of seeing the report from which the hon. Member quoted at some length. At the end, I had the feeling that, in spite of bad buildings and dispersal, and in spite of perhaps a sense of being overlooked or neglected, this was a fairly good school. I think that the hon. Member was probably right to say that this fact owes much to the staff and caretaker. I can join with the hon. Member in paying tribute to those who work successfully under conditions that are not good.

This rebuilding project has been put forward by the London County Council for inclusion in one or other of the last two programmes—the 1960–61 or the 1961–62 building programme. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to sympathise with the Minister and the Ministry who have to sort out these priorities. I hope that he will share some of his sympathy with the London County Council, which has to take part in this very difficult exercise. This is a problem with which the Ministry lives day by day—the problem of how to make sure that such resources as are available, which are not unlimited, are canalised into directions where the need is greatest and where the use of the resources will do most good.

I cannot say when it will be possible to promise that this school will be rebuilt, because the assessment of priorities and urgencies must always be undertaken afresh with each year's building programme. I am sure the hon. Member will agree that that is the right way to go about it. We have recently asked local education authorities to let us have their projected building programmes for the year 1962–63. I do not know whether the Crampton Street primary school will appear in the L.C.C. list. Even if it appears there, I still do not know whether it will emerge as one of the priorities getting itself a place in that year. We are, however, in the middle of a five-year building programme, and we should not lose heart if we find one day that we have failed to get all of the five years' programmes into any one year. There is a long way yet to go before we get to the end of our five-year programme.

I should like to ask all those who have children at school or who work there as teachers or have an interest as managers to believe that we want to replace the school with a decent school as soon as we can. When we see our way clear to do so nothing will give my right hon. Friend greater pleasure than to be able to have a new primary school serving the children who are now served by this unsatisfactory school in Crampton Street.

Mr. Gunter

What is to happen to the children from the 350 new dwellings?

Mr. Thompson

I did not want to get diverted into that, because it is part of a wider problem. It may well be that the Friars county primary school now being built in Southwark will either serve those 350 houses or will siphon off from the Crampton Street primary school some of the children, whose places could be taken by the children from the 350 houses. I really do not know. I would need notice of the question and a good look at a rather detailed map before I could give a precise answer. I was trying to avoid being contentious and was refraining from reminding the hon. Member that Southwark has a county primary school in the existing programme, but it is all part of the whole plan of trying to do a complicated job as best we can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Nine o'clock.